Calling tonight's 103-95 Portland Trail Blazers victory over the Chicago Bulls "pretty" would be an overstatement. Plenty of things went wrong for Portland in this rag-tag affair; from opening tip to closing horn neither team could establish a rhythm. But it was an important win nonetheless, made more so by the scattered nature of the fray. When their usual strengths failed them, the Blazers still found a way to prevail on the road against an experienced team. The effort provided a referendum on their embarrassing second-half gaffe against the Houston Rockets Friday night. Instead of carrying a 2-game losing streak into a tough matchup with Indiana tomorrow, the Blazers will walk into Bankers Life Fieldhouse proud owners of a 1-0 record with their miscues firmly behind them and hope lying ahead.
The first quarter of this game was a flashing-pink neon sign declaring that the evening wasn't going to follow any recognizable course. The Blazers scored 21 points in the frame; 15 of those came from Damian Lillard. Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard contributed 3 apiece. CJ McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Noah Vonleh were nowhere to be found.
Lillard sent Lassie for help during a TV timeout but she and Rin-Tin-Tin must have stopped off for deep-dish pizza because the starting trio remained stuck down a well for the entire evening. They'd combine for 4-19 shooting and 13 points. McCollum normally accounts for that many field goal attempts and twice as many points. With Chicago imposing a grind-it-out tempo that was sure to wear Portland's offense thin, Blazers fans gulped hard as they realized they'd watch Lillard face five Bulls all on his own.
Except he wasn't on his own.
Remember that scene in Harry Potter when janitors and house elves and Percy Weasley and Neville's grandma all show up to fight the final battle at Hogwarts, making up for the apparent absence of Harry, Ron, and Hermione? That's exactly what the Blazers bench did tonight. With McCollum MIA and Lillard bound to sink under the weight of eventual double- and triple-teams, Gerald Henderson and Allen Crabbe came to the rescue on offense while Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis did the same on defense and the boards. With Mason Plumlee scoring 16 on the side, the Blazers not only stayed afloat, they pulled ahead and remained so throughout the game.
As I mentioned in the intro, neither team found any serious flow. During certain stretches the Bulls were able to hit jumpers. They generally prospered as they did so. For most of the game their outside shooting lacked confidence, allowing the Blazers to patrol the lane with impunity. As has been true all season long, when the opponent gives Portland a single area of the floor to cover, youth and athleticism more than make up for lack of technique or coordination. Time and again the Bulls probed the lane only to find two defenders waiting plus a third guy ready to grab the rebounded miss. Pau Gasol warmed up to the mid-range game, claiming a triple-double in the process. (He finished the night with 22 points, 16 rebounds, and 14 assists.) But every time Gasol went near the paint, Leonard or Plumlee would clock him. With little or no steady support from his teammates, Pau couldn't do enough mid-range damage to turn the game.
After the deadlocked first period, the Blazers streaked ahead in a 30-20 second quarter featuring bullying "D" and brilliant offensive strokes from Crabbe and Henderson. After that the game stayed mostly even, with Chicago making a run late but never being able to put down enough buckets to overcome their deficit. The inside work of Davis and Plumlee in the second half was wholly impressive, providing Portland the spark that Chicago lacked. Every time the Bulls got the lead below 6, Portland would stretch it out to 9-11 points again. After a half-dozen cycles of the pattern, time ran out on the Bulls and the game.
Seeing the Blazers win a game with defense was fantastic. Portland isn't awful on that end of the floor anymore, just mediocre with tendencies toward the erratic. Their defensive performance doesn't always match up with the need. Tonight it did. Every time the Blazers were threatened they buckled down, forced a miss, and rebounded. This was an ugly, at times bruising, game. Coming out on top is not only a feather in Portland's cap, but a sign of their commitment to winning.
The huge asterisk to the "great defense" narrative is the Bulls' injury status. E'Twaun Moore led his team in field goal attempts by a mile with 22. Gasol was next with 16 but behind him were Doug McDermott, Mike Dunleavy, and Brian Portis. With 60 out of 94 Chicago shot attempts coming from guys who would be no higher than the 5th option on decent teams, crowing about defending them well comes with a grain of salt. Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose might have made a difference in this game. Judge the long-term applicability of defensive claims accordingly.
Nevertheless, the Blazers didn't have to win this game. It wasn't easy and the victory wasn't going to be earned with offense alone. Portland shot 5-21 from the three-point arc, 38-87 from the field overall...slightly below average. McCollum struggled through a 1-12 evening, scoring a season-low 6 points. It was the first time he's failed to hit double-digits all year. Given that, the Bulls should have had Portland dead to rights. But so many Blazers did little things well: Leonard bodying up on Gasol, Plumlee covering low, Davis blocking shots and beasting under both buckets, Henderson and Crabbe finding seams and hitting mid-range jumpers. It was like two opposing platoons crawling around foxholes in the dark with artillery shells falling randomly all around, neither sure where the enemy lay. One side had a little more discipline and confidence than the other. They didn't outgun the opponent but they brought their firepower to bear more efficiently and that proved the difference. Portland was the superior team.
Make no mistake, this was a big game. Not only did it show that the Blazers weren't going to carry over Friday's loss into this long road trip, it set them up well for the ultimate goal: playing .500 over the next 6 games until they can return home. They needed one win in Chicago, Indiana, or Detroit to bring 3-3 squarely into their sights. They got it on their first try. Now they play with house money tomorrow in Indiana, then try to pick up the easiest game of the trip Tuesday in New York. As long as they win that Knicks game, they need only take 1 of 3 in Boston, Toronto, and Detroit to keep the record even. If they manage that, they overcome a huge hurdle and set themselves up for an exciting run at the playoffs during the last month of the season.
Tonight's game ball goes to Ed Davis. He came off the bench like a tornado, scoring 9 points with 9 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 3 steals in 25 minutes. He committed 0 personal fouls in the process. The rest of the team held Chicago down, but Davis beat them up. Without him, the Blazers don't win this one. We see you, Ed.
Damian Lillard led all players in scoring with 31 on 12-26 shooting. His offense was strictly, "I'm taking the ball and I'm going to make this work." The beautiful system and Lillard laying in the weeds went by the wayside. The entire game was an extended broken offensive set punctuated by the occasional backdoor cut. Most of the scoring outside of those pretty backdoor plays came from Lillard hoisting the team on his shoulders.
Mason Plumlee also had a huge outing. 16 points and 9 rebounds look modest, especially when coupled with 5 personal fouls in 28 minutes. But Plumlee filled every gap his teammates left him tonight, plus those the opponent pushed him into (i.e. 13 free throw attempts on mostly-intentional fouls, of which he made 10). Plumlee joined Leonard in beating up Gasol and keeping him on the perimeter as well.
Speaking of...Meyers Leonard has had far better statistical outings than he did tonight (8 points, 8 rebounds in 21 minutes) but this was one of a few games where we can say with confidence that Leonard was a solid stone in the foundation. Portland's bench has been slipping lately, often on the defensive end. This game could have fallen apart when the second unit shuffled in. Leonard set the tone by clocking Gasol...somewhat too obviously, but the point was made. Pau was frustrated, Meyers had a mean look on his mug, and the Blazers weren't losing.
CJ McCollum: 1-12, 0-5 from distance, 7 assists...but still. Ouch. The lack of beautiful offense didn't favor CJ. Left to his own devices his shot went south, then downright Antarctic. Every time he got into the lane he found defenders waiting. This game held nothing for him. It's incredible that the Blazers emerged as well as they did with McCollum MIA.
Allen Crabbe played 35 minutes, Gerald Henderson 27. They scored 11 and 13 respectively, Crabbe firing 50% from the field and Henderson only a tick behind. The Bulls were obviously schooled in Portland's "Three-or-Layup" approach to offense. The reserve shooting guards provided the wrinkle that foiled Chicago's defense. Every made shot was like gold in this game; Henderson and Crabbe each made more than anybody outside of Lillard.
We're going to give Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Moe Harkless a pass in this one. It was a weird game. Their defense was good enough and Vonleh had a monster jam.
Links and Such
Boxscore (Now 50% less useful because some networks who shall not be named don't know what they're doing. But the NBA also does a pretty bad job of keeping stats. If Flannery O'Connor were alive today she could probably pen "Good Information is Hard to Find".)
Video Play of the Day (Yah! It's Ed Davis!)
Blog a Bull will probably regard this game like one of those bad dreams where you can almost find the thing you're looking for but just when you think you have it, it disappears again.
The Blazers face the Indiana Pacers tomorrow at 3 p.m. Pacific.